A trio of operas by Gustav Holst at the 2021 Leeds Opera Festival

Gustav Holst completed nine operas.  They span his compositional career.  None were commissioned; several were not performed in his lifetime; most did not meet with critical acclaim.  Few would consider Holst an ‘opera composer’.  Indeed, Holst’s decision to consistently return to the operatic genre throughout his life places him in the margins of British musical life of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

The 2021 Leeds Opera Festival (23rd-30th August), which is produced by Northern Opera Group, should do much to correct public and musicological opinion.  Two new productions directed by Emma Black and performed at Morley Town Hall – of Holst’s Sāvitri, the libretto of which was translated by Holst from the original Sanskrit text of a tale, ‘The Book of the Forest’, from the third volume of Mahābhārata; and, the comic At the Boar’s Head, for which the composer threaded together the Falstaff scenes from Shakespeare’s Henry IV, integrating traditional country-dance tunes and folksongs – will be complemented by Jim Osman’s production of Holst’s final opera, The Wandering Scholar, which will ‘pop up’ in eight venues across Leeds and will be free to attend.

Alongside these three works by Holst, audiences will be able to enjoy a new creative response to Sāvitri, commissioned by and South Asian Arts UK, as composer Sarah Sayeed and librettist Jaspreet Kaur reimagine Holst’s opera for a 21st– century context.  This new Sāvitri, which blends spoken word with music for voice, bass, veena, sitar, and violin, is one of two ‘new responses to old operas’ that NOG have commissioned with the aim of creating new music theatre responses to opera’s past and ‘bringing a contemporary perspective to the operas, composers and stories that have dominated the art for centuries’.

Sarah Sayeed

Holst’s earliest operatic venture bears witness to the seemingly contradictory influences of Richard Wagner and Arthur Sullivan.  Lansdown Castle – indebted to Savoy opera and with a Gilbertian libretto by Colonel A.C. Cunningham – premiered at the Cheltenham Corn Exchange in 1893.  The reviewer of the Gloucester Echo was full of praise: ‘The remarkable treatment of Major Cunningham’s Libretto more than justified the production of the operetta, and Mr. Gustav von Holst give evidence in his work not only of genius, but of careful laborious study’.  Holst subsequently submitted the operetta as his representative piece for entrance into the Royal College of Music.

Another review is potentially more troubling in the light of the Victorian imperialism which undoubtedly informed Holst’s early encounters with the East: ‘Lord Raymond and his knights find life at Lansdown Castle very slow, notwithstanding the attractions of bazaars and drawing-rooms, the proceeds of which are devoted to send collars to the poor benighted subjects of Oko Jumbo, and to the poor ignorant subjects of Jah-Jah, West Indian potentates – ‘lucky chaps’, as Lord Raymond describes them, who ‘chop off their wives’ heads when they’re tired of ‘em.’[1]

Holst’s first trip outside Europe was to French Algeriain 1908; at the end of the First World War, he travelled east again to what is now Thessaloniki, Greece, under the aegis of the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA).  His letters to his wife during these travels suggest that he had imbibed Cheltenham’s prevailing colonial perspective.  However, his music tells a different or at least a complicating narrative, particularly with respect to Holst’s encounters with ancient Indian culture.  Works such as Sāvitri (composed in 1908–09 and first performed in 1916) and the Choral Hymns from the Rig Veda (1908-12) adopt a more reverential tone – at least in the music, if not always in Holst’s own somewhat archaic translations of the original Sanskrit.  It’s not irrelevant that around this time, Holst musical language began to change too, as he rejected his immediate musical past, and late nineteenth-century majesty (as represented by his grand 1899 opera, Sita), and looked back to traditional English folksong and the music of the Renaissance for the inspiration that might enable him to develop a personal voice and idiom.

Sāvitri might thus be considered to represent something of a volte-face: a one-act chamber opera for three singers, off-stage wordless female chorus, and a small ensemble of two flutes, cor anglais, double string quartet, and double-bass, which Holst hoped would be staged in the open air.  The libretto, in which a wife defies Death and restores her husband to life, certainly avoids the bombast and imperialism of the composer’s first G&S-style operetta.

Sāvitri is born to King Ashvapati of the Madra people.  When she is eighteen years old, since no man has come forward to ask for her hand in marriage, she is sent on a pilgrimage to find a husband.  She chooses Satyavān – a woodcutter and son of a dispossessed king, whom she has been informed by the sage Narada has just one year to live – who lives, ignorant of his destiny, with his mother and blind father in exile in the forest.   As the day of his death approaches, Sāvitri undertakes the severe tapas of standing day and night for three days.  On the fourth day, she accompanies her husband into the forest.  When Satyavān collapses and Death (Yama) comes to take his soul away, Sāvitri shows such meek wisdom that Death gives her three wishes.  She asks that her father-in-law regain his sight, and also his kingdom; and that her own father will have one hundred sons.  Granted a fourth wish, she asks that she and Satyavān will also have a hundred sons – a wish that implies a fifth, which is given without question: Satyavān is returned to the living. 

On the one hand, the Indian myth might seem to be a paradigmatic story of devoted wifehood.  On the other, Sāvitri is remarkable for the way that she determines her own future, getting the better of Yama with the erudition and eloquence of her verses.  This is no portrait of feminine resignation, although Sayeed and Kaur have spoken of their aim in their new composition to ‘reclaim Savitri’s voice’ and ‘explore how we deconstruct the lives of Asian/Indian women historically and then reconstruct perceptions of them.’

Meeta Raval (courtesy of Svanholm Artists Management)

I asked the soprano Meeta Raval, who will sing Sāvitri in the two performances in Leeds, how she responds to Holst’s writing for the voice and to his engagement with the Indian epic text.  Meeta was (at Wells Cathedral School) the first Head Girl Chorister in the country; a finalist in the 2011 BBC Cardiff Singer of the World competition; the inaugural prize-winner of the Royal Academy of Music Pavarotti Prize; and a recipient of the Independent Opera Award, among other honours.  A dramatic soprano praised for her “impressive security” and “silvery tone”, she most frequently performs in the operas of Puccini, Verdi and Wagner.  Meeta explains that she would not have anticipated being gifted the opportunity to perform such a role as Sāvitri, in a chamber-opera.  But the Indian theme chimes loudly with current political and cultural contexts and Meeta relishes the chance to “use my voice in different ways, without the need to compete against large orchestral forces”.  There are other serendipitous elements too: the young tenor Kamil Bien who sings the role of Satyavān has the same vocal teacher as Meeta; and, bass Julian Close, who impersonates Death – a reincarnation of Krishna – is a renowned Wagnerian bass, and capable of expertly exploiting the low darkness of the role.

Moreover, Meeta remarks, Holst writes incredibly long vocal lines which are quasi-Wagnerian and driven above the orchestral parts; and he makes use of leitmotifs.  The tessitura is unusual, too, often resting in the mezzo range.  Holst’s vocal phrases are certainly free, metrically, and expansive, adapted to the textual structures., and this does create a forward, flowing energy, which is perhaps as associated with Tudor music as it is with Wagnerian music drama.  But, as Meeta remarks, the voice has to hold its own even though the forces are much sparser than Wagner would require.  She feels it needs a “bigger voice” than one might imagine within the ‘chamber context’, in order to achieve the range of colour required.  Sāvitri’s voice has more “stature” than the two male roles –and this embodies the goddess within Sāvitri.

Indeed, as Meeta reminds me, in Indian culture Sāvitri is often revered as a goddess herself.  In the west, too – her legend was popular in Europe in the nineteenth century – she was described by one translator (Johann Jakob Meyer) as ‘the pearl of all Indian women’.  Others have focused on her self-determination and heroic qualities.  Certainly, her eloquence seems to invite musical representation.  Offering her the boons, Yama commends, ‘This most salutary speech that you have spoken to me pleases my heart and enhances the wisdom of the wise’, ‘Fair lady, never before have I heard such words as you have spoken’ and ‘The more you speak of dharma so pleasingly and eloquently, and with such great significance, the more I feel the highest affection for you. Lady, you are a keeper of your word; now choose an incomparable boon!’

One thing that Meeta emphasises is that the legend – just a snapshot of the whole Mahābhārata – is a “clear cut” and “timeless” fable.  And, it’s the case that Holst excised all references to Hinduism, thereby making the story more universal.  But, one element that he retained, and which is central to his drama, is the concept of ‘maia’, illusion, which is represented in the opera by the ethereal and rapturous off-stage female chorus.  It is at this intersection between words and music, that the power of the singing voice is perhaps most evident. 

Sāvitri will be performed at Morley Town Hall in Leeds on Friday 27th and Saturday 28th August.

Claire Seymour

[1] Cited in Christopher Scheer, ‘The Importance of Cheltenham: Imperialism, Liminality and Gustav Holst in Journal of Victorian Culture, (2014) Vol.19, No.3: 365–82.